Is it hypocritical for anarchists to protest against the state’s actions?

I have been meaning to tackle the criticism thrown at anarchists for taking part in demonstrations, such as today’s nationwide UK Uncut protests, as supposedly being hypocritical given their critique of the state. Consider the following tweet, where Old Holborn added his contribution at the end, relating to today’s protests:

RT @StarSparkle_UK: Love it! RT @agthompson Large anarchist flag now flying by HSBC. #ukuncut <<UP THE BIG STATE

Libertarians such as Old Holborn, and people from a variety of political persuasions, argue that anarchists cannot possibly support the anti-cut action. This argument is based on several false accusations.

For starters, it assumes that anarchism is a paradigm that purely wishes for people to be left to do as they please; autonomy over freedom as Bookchin would say. Before Bookchin divorced his association with anarchism in 2002, he warned that what he called lifestyle anarchism was eroding the tradition’s rich historical background. Anarchism’s roots go back to the likes of Kropotkin, who had an almost socialistic communal theoretical orientation. Nevertheless, there has always been the individualistic tendencies such as Emma Goldman within the tradition; every tradition has it’s different fractions.

I would claim to have anarchist tendencies, but what frustrates me is the reaction I get from many when I say this. Anarchism is often falsely equated to violence and disorder. This ignores the majority of anarchists who argue for a ordered steady alternative form of governance (public assemblies, for example) to counteract and replace the state.

There is nothing hypocritical about anarchists protesting against the state’s actions as a testament to the problems that state control can pose for society. Anarchists help illustrate the dangers of hierarchical societies and the imposition this can have upon people’s lives. Just because anarchists do not want the state as it is today, doesn’t mean they are unable to have a voice and protest. Do people such as Old Holborn expect anarchists to just passively do nothing, to avoid their actions being deemed ‘unanarchist’?

As mentioned, anarchists often want a different form of state. Therefore, campaigning against the state’s actions must be seen in a more specific context. It is a campaign against the neoliberal state. Anarchists that have strongly influenced me have advocated for a new form of governance, which could even be seen as a state (but not equated to one considering the negative conceptions anarchists attribute to the state). Even some ecosocialists such as Kovel have forms of governance that can even be equated to anarchism in style and praxis.

The suppression of an anarchist discourse is another example of how dominant discourse is reinforced and utilised to isolate ideas, culture and political economic relations that pose a direct challenge to the prevalent power structures. Anarchism is even portrayed as being a terrorist movement, as the media and mainstream political channels try to silence any musing of an alternative. There is nothing contradictory about anarchists campaigning for what they believe. They can protest against the state’s actions as a way to highlight the problems states can cause; nor should anarchists be all deemed as senseless individualists. Enclosure such as this needs to be resisted.


15 thoughts on “Is it hypocritical for anarchists to protest against the state’s actions?

  1. The irony comes from the fact (yes, fact) that more taxes mean a stronger state. This is surely not anarchist in the slightest, no matter how you frame it (anarchists from Proudhon to Rothbard).

  2. Sorry to double post, but perhaps the title of this blog post ought to be: ‘is it hypocritical for anarchists to protest against the stat’s INactions?’

  3. The point is that anarchists want to challenge the social, political economic relations of the existing society so to cast it in such black and white terms is wrong. It’s a complex issue, and anarchists are only highlighting the issues of capitalism and its influence upon society.

    Most anarchists are against capitalism; they are only highlighting the injustices of the existing system that it is wrong for people to get away with tax avoidance whilst the state homes in on those who can least afford it. It’s highlighting the contradictions of hierarchy practices.

  4. Libertarians need to critique the corporate as well, the cuts in the UK are not about individual liberty but corporate power.

    One of the charms of Elinor Ostrom is that she is from a libertarian tradition and is sceptical of big concentrations of power both state and market.

  5. Derek: of course, you’re not wrong! Genuine libertarians (I’m conscious that I’m about to commit the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy here, but whatever) consider the banking industry as it stands to be anathema to free market ideals. Many of us – and here I am, setting my stall out – are utterly exasperated with the way things are going. The difference is we place the blame at the foot of the legislators. What bankers and their ilk are doing is just perfectly rational given the regulation that allows them to do what they do.

    Jane: I can just about buy that argument. But I can’t help but feel it’s a bit of cognitive dissonance. Not on your part necessarily, but it’s almost as if these so-called ‘anarchists’ protest like this then try to fit their ideology to the situation, rather than vice versa. But, admittedly, I wouldn’t really know what they think, and shouldn’t be pretending to either!

  6. I do agree that there are a lot of damaging misconceptions surrounding anarchism and these need to be challenge.
    One of the many problems with incorrectly linking anarchism with violence and chaos iin this instance for example is that either the media and members of the public wrongly label the violent and destructive members of the protest as anarchists for that reason or on the other side people like to call themselves anarchist when they enjoy that kind of destructive behaviour.

    As for whether or not it is hypocritical for anarchists to protest against government action on things like tuition fees and taxes it depends which tradition of anarchism they identify with. You a quite right, a collectivist or communist anarchist would be very much following his or her ideology to be protesting in cuts to public services.
    An indivualist anarchist, following the school of thought that wants to see the country governed instead entirely by market forces for example probably would be out of place in such protests.

  7. Chomsky once pointed out that we have to deal with institutions as they are, not how we wish them to be. Anarchism believes in the good of the community and the self sufficiency of the community. However we are not at that point. Like it or not, state institutions which rule our lives and dictate that our communitys have to have dpendence on them, are makeing cuts out of money that is rightfully ours.

    It is there for important to defend our communitys rather than allowing them to suffer. During such struggles it is possible to build solidarity that might eventually lead to independence form the state, but until we reach that point we must defend the concessions we have gained from the ruling class.

    Anarchism, as a philosophy, is only useful to an individual or a community as long as it helps your lifes in the immediate as well as the future. To help our lifes in the immediate it means doing what we can with society as it is now. At times that means defending gains we have from the state.

    BTW I disagree with your reading of Emma Goldman as coming from the individualist tendency. I’ve always interpretted her writings as coming froma libertarian communist/ council communist perspective, concerned with community, rather than individual freedom. After all, she argued that the ideal of anrchism was that “economic arrangements must consist of voluntary productive and distributive associations, gradually developing into free communism, as the best means of producing, with the least waste of human energy.”

  8. As an addition, you wrote that people often react by equating anrchism with violence when you mention it. i thoguht you might be interested that Emma Goldman also confronted the arguement that anarchism was associated with violence by writing “…anarchism is the only philosophy that wants peace, the only theory of the social relationship that values human life above anything else. I know that some anarchists have committed acts of violence, but it is the terrible economic equality and great political injustice that prompts such acts, not anarchism. every institution today rests on violence; our atmosphere is saturated with it. So long as the state exsists we might as well strive to stop the rush of the Niagara as to do away with violence… No act committed by an Anarchist has been for personal gain, aggrandizement or profit, but rather a conscious protest against some repressive, arbitary, tyrannical measure from above.”

  9. larissa: Is there any merit in the idea of a ‘collectivist anarchist’? Is that not a contradiction in terms? In order to collectivise you need somebody to collect…

  10. Not necessarily brizss, there are ways of acting collectively based on consensus and are non-hierarchical. Whether that’s always doable and practical on large scales is another question (and one that I don’t know the answer to myself).

  11. bnzss,

    I assume from your later comment that you view anarchism and collective action in general as some contradiction – and as others point out – it really isn’t a contradiction as many anarchists have advocated for communal and collective forms of protest. I think the fact that you have a very individualistic view of what anarchism is in general is central to why you are finding it hard to not see protests against the state as a contradiction. The other comments add some good points for why it is not, including the need to fight against the problems of the institutions now, as well as fighting for a new future.


    I totally agree with what you are saying, and i tried to get that point across in the blog. For certain anarchists it is a contradiction, but a big part of the anarchist tradition would see no contradiction in protesting against the state. As for the misconceptions, we only have to look at the stories of police and the Daily Mail infiltrating the anarchist groups to see how easily that can be done.


    Really well said; you are so right that we cannot be indifferent and sit back and just hope an anarchist style system emerges. As regards to Goldman, I am open to your interpretation – I am basing mine mainly on her musings about free love which I see as individualistic. However, I don’t see individualism as unuseful – there are only a few who have abused it – and free love, as i have written in previous blog posts is a very useful and an interesting idea to consider when analysing state control of relationships. But I would be interested, if you have any pointers of reading that try to show how Goldman is more of a collectivist than an individualistic anarchist? And nice quote by Goldman re violence, thanks for that:) Might use it in a future post.


    Yes, I agree with you there. Many anarchists in the tradition argue for collective action, decisions etc – Bookchin’s communalism is a good example of that.

  12. I think Emma Goldman is an interesting case. In effect she spent her life as an activist and revolutionary. As such, she did not really put forward any ideas that had not been put forward before. However (like other influential revolutionarys, such as James Connolly) her legacy lies in both the inspiring and straight forward way she made statements and the fact that she manged to tie her ideas to the present and put revolutionary ideas people might not of come across otherwise, in an attractive and striaght forward way.

    I can’t say that I agreee with everything she said. However, her individualist strand did come from attacking the social institutions of the state and belief in the autonomy of the individual. Yet she did also believe that collectivisation and free communism was the only possible way of gaining personal liberty.

    This was shown by her spending her life firmly embedded in workers struggles in America, acting as an agitator against capital. Like wise, she at first supported the Russian revolution, but became dissillusioned upon deportation there. In her book ‘My dissillusionment with Russia’ she concluded that “There is no communism ionn Russia.” She later strongly supported the Spanish revoltuion, argueign that the CNT/FAI were achieveing what she had fought for all her life. She argued that the dilution sof the revolution and the centralisation and reversing of the collectivisation was not a neccessity of the war, but was leading to the losing of the war and the revolution there.

    Unfortunately I have always found it hard to get her works (although I can’t say I’ve lookedm that hard). Most of the published stuff is now in anthologys and it is dependent on what the editor chooses that gets published. As such, some editors emphasise her individualist statements, others play up her feminist statements and so on. But all her statement were made within the context that only free communism could achieve what she believed in. Capitalism and the state crushed individuality, while the individual could only floursih in a free communist society, which would guarentee the end of hierarchys.

    TO read more on this aspect, I would reccomend ‘Red Emma Speaks’ (edited by Alex Kates Shulman) which has collected peechs and writings fromthrough out her life. The first part, organization of society, contains her essays ‘What I believe’, ‘Anarchism:what it really stands for’, ‘Syndicalism: Its theory and practice’ and ‘The individual, society and the state.’ I believe all these essays are available in other volumes.

    The edition also has her writing in detail about free communism in other parts under ehadings such as ‘intellectual proletarians’ and part four ‘Two revolutions and a summary’. I hope this helps.

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